It’s been a long road to the big screen for Deadpool, a Marvel character that isn’t as famous as Spider-Man, the X-Men or The Avengers but has a devoted fan base. We’ve seen the character before of course, as played by Ryan Reynolds in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, one of the worst comic book adaptations in recent memory. That film butchered the character badly and fans – Reynolds included – have been itching ever since to see an adaptation that does the ‘Merc with a Mouth’ justice.
Whether it’s accurate to the spirit of the comic books or not – it would take a bigger comic book fan than myself to confirm – Tim Miller’s Deadpool is a blast; a violent, vulgar and viciously self-aware comedy that has some heart to it. Reynolds returns as Deadpool, the mutant assassin with accelerated healing abilities and an impressive array of weaponry. It’s a pleasure to see Reynolds finally gifted with a role that’s made for him; he has always impressed in smaller films but any attempt at the big time – from Green Lantern to RIPD – has failed miserably. This feels like his time has finally come and he relishes every foul-mouthed one-liner, pop culture reference and comic book zinger.
Miller sets the tone right away with an inspired opening credits scene that moves in slow-mo through the chaos of a freeze-framed action scene, giving us a close-up of the carnage while introducing a series of character archetypes rather than the actors playing them. The scene, it transpires, is from a section of the opening action sequence, which sees Deadpool take on a team of generic goons on a bridge, quipping endlessly as he picks them apart. It’s an effective intro to the character and the world he inhabits, showing off the full array of his skills, his powers and his motor-mouth style in a wickedly funny and violent scene.
Intercut with this is Deadpool’s origin, the story of how he went from an ex-special ops lowlife Wade Wilson to a maniacal mercenary with revenge on his mind. It starts with a relationship with hooker-with-a-heart-of-coal Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), leads to a terminal cancer diagnosis and finally a shady medical programme that saved his life and ruined it at the same time, leaving him disfigured from head-to-toe but gifted with his mutant powers. The programme is run by a sinister scientist named Ajax (Ed Skrein) who has made a living turning desperate people into mutant slaves. After escaping the programme, Wade sets out to find Ajax, have him fix his mangled body and eventually win back his beloved Vanessa.
As superhero plots go, it’s refreshing to see one this straightforward, with no giant explosions or spaceships falling from the sky, though the finale does come perilously close to unnecessarily grand-scale mayhem. That largely comes courtesy of Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negaonsic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), two low-level X-Men thrown in to give Deadpool some back up and remind us all that even a film that purports to be an anarchic anti-superhero film still has to have some ties to a pre-existing universe, this time Fox’s X-Men universe.
For all the plot’s simplicity is a plus, there are still scenes here that drag, much of them involving the villain. As is becoming more and more common in these films, Ajax is a limp antagonist that feels like he’s put in place just to give the hero someone to fight. To his credit, Skrein has some screen presence and is effective as a physical threat but where the film missteps is having that character double up as the mad scientist behind Wade’s transformation. Skrein never rings true as a doctor and it feels like he’s there as the main villain’s henchman, only the main villain didn’t show up.
Regardless, Deadpool is more effective as a comedy than it is a superhero actioner and on that front it definitely succeeds. The jokes, references, fourth-wall breaks, sly visual gags and foul-mouthed tirades arrive with machine-gun frequency, which is perfect for Reynolds’ fast-talking, sophomoric humour. He is let off the leash here in a way he hasn’t been in years and reminds everyone why he has been on the brink of stardom for so long. While the film doesn’t feel all that unique, the character definitely is, with a self-awareness that goes beyond the occassional embarrassed nod to a silly name or costume: Deadpool knows he’s in a comic book movie and knows about all the other ones that exist too, constantly referencing them and poking fun at them. In a way, it took all those films being made first to pave the way for Deadpool to come along and make fun of them, to vocalise the growing fatigue audiences are starting to feel about the abundance of these films.
In that sense, Deadpool gets its cake and eats it too: a big superhero movie that’s connected to an even bigger universe that sells itself on making fun of other big, interconnected superhero movies. The Merc with a Mouth would surely approve.